“I never timed how long it lasted, probably two seconds max. It was all a bit of a blur really.” I’m sitting next to Mark Higgins, three-time British Rally Champion, in a Subaru BRZ- and this is his modest desciption of the biggest ‘moment’ of his career. He says it with a smile and not a flicker of fear in his eyes, as we pass the exact point on the Isle of Man TT course where the wobble took place three years ago.
“It started going sideways here and stopped going left and right at this road,” he tells us, pointing at a junction 200 metres up ahead. “All I was trying to do was stay focused and no matter what direction the car was pointing keep the wheels pointing straight.
“The Bray hill incident was good for publicity, but we learned an awful lot from it. Basically the back left suspension bottomed out briefly when I hit a bump – bikes can stay right and avoid the bump but we couldn’t, there’s not enough room.”
Watch the video below to learn what a 150mph tank-slapper looks like, along with the most sublime piece of car control you’re ever likely to see. Despite his brush with death, Higgins still managed to set the lap record for a production car around the Isle of Man TT, averaging 115.36mph for the 37.7-mile course. In 2014 he’s back again to go even faster.
His weapon of choice is a new-generation US-spec Subaru WRX STI, powered by a 301bhp 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine. The only modifications are a roll cage in the back, new springs and dampers to cope with the immense forces, uprated brake pads, a racing seat (but no passenger seat) and a deafening straight-through exhaust to give the spectators some warning it’s coming, and something to cheer.
“The chassis is 40 per cent stiffer and the aero package is different, but we’ve got pretty much the same performance as the 2011 car,” Higgins tells us. “If I knew I was coming back three years later I would have gone slower [in 2011] and made my job here a whole lot easier.”
By the time we go for a drive in the BRZ around the road circuit, it’s been a frustrating few days. His first of three timed laps was three days ago, and plagued by problems with the car: “We had a good run on Saturday but the car’s so new, you’re running down Bray Hill at 160mph learning things all the time. The problem is it’s such an extreme situation for a road car – it got too warm and it’s way of dealing with that is dumping more fuel into the engine which cuts the power. We still averaged 114mph though so I have to be happy with that.”
His second lap has now been delayed twice by weather delays and two tragic fatalities – one involving veteran road racer Bob Price on Monday evening and another incident on Tuesday afternoon where 34-year old Karl Harris lost his life. But Higgins remains unfazed, is happy to play second-fiddle to the kamakaze bike racers and completely focused on the task in hand.
“For every mile per hour average it’s about 12 seconds per lap, so if I want to go from a 115mph to a 116mph I need to find another 10 or 15 seconds,” he explained. “The problem with a road car is there’s quite a big gap between fifth and sixth gear and that’s what you’re in all the time over here. It’s a bit of an eye-opener how fast it is.”
The next day we’re up with the birds, expecting rain but greeted by a glorious Manx morning. Ever the professional, Higgins – himself an Isle of Man resident for 23 years - has agreed to take us on guided lap of the TT Mountain course he’s hoping to be let loose on later that morning – pointing out every braking point, gear change and the speeds he’ll be carrying.
“This is totally different to rallying – I know what’s going on at 120mph, but at 140mph it feels like it’s floating – and 37.7 miles of course isn’t easy to memorise at my age,” he admits. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done – I’m hooked up to all sorts of biometric equipment and you see spikes in my heartbeat of 50bpm. I’ve been rallying for 25 years, hanging off cliffs on gravel stages, but it’s the speed of this and trying to control 1.5 tonnes of mass that’s the challenge.”
And then we get the call – Higgins is needed at Creg-ny-Baa, a vantage point three miles from the start line, enough distance to warm the brakes, tyres and fluids and build up to a 135mph flying start. We huddle around the radio waiting for news. Early signs are good - at the first split he’s six seconds faster than he was in 2011, and he’s clocked at 162.9mph on the Sulby Straight.
Then, with the worst possible timing, the announcer leaves the Subaru to read out the runner and riders in the next Supersport TT race. When he returns to Higgins he’s rounding the penultimate corner, but there’s no update on the time. He crosses the line. The computer calculates his average speed. Then we hear it - 116.47mph and a time of 19 minutes and 26 seconds – he’s done it, with time to spare.
When we catch up with him he’s clearly elated, but far from satisfied: “That was quite a wild lap, there’s definitely more time out there,” he told us. “I probably dropped about 10 seconds going over the mountain, we lost some power, and locked up at Signpost. The first two thirds were perfect though. It’s a great feeling to break the record, but I want to break it by more. That’s always the way, the nature of the beast.”